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Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011

Avoid the sins of playing live in the grimy clubs of Japan

Special to The Japan Times

Spend a lot of time trawling the grimy-toilet venues of the Tokyo music scene and, apart from gaining an encyclopaedic knowledge of how to smuggle alcohol past staff members guarding the doors of various venues, you will start to pick up on the minutiae of musicians' stagecraft like a sommelier when it comes to fine wines. After several years serving time in the country's underground music scene, and in a spirit of sharing, here is one indie-music snob's guide for artists on how to avoid possible pitfalls in your performances:

1: Don't bang the drums incessantly while setting up.

In fact this goes for guitarists just as much as drummers. You have time set aside before the doors open to do a sound check or rehearsal, so the sound guy/girl has your levels all ready. There should really be no need to hammer away at your drums or thrash away at your guitar while setting up. I can understand why drummers might need to give the kit a quick test, to make sure each piece is positioned comfortably for them, and there are of course shows where the bands have no chance for a sound check (and if you're Tatsuya Yoshida or Keiji Haino, the audience might consider a noisy set-up period from you an actual bonus). But as a general rule, you're sparing the crowd a lot of pain, and annoying the DJ a lot less, by keeping the noise to a minimum.

2 (a): You are not a comedian.

I don't care about what you had for lunch, what you saw while you were walking your dog the other day, or what banal observations you have to share with us about last night's television viewing. You have 30 minutes on this stage and I have paid upward of ¥2,000 to see you play music, so give me my money's worth. However, I'm assured that this is a cultural thing and that Japanese audiences appreciate the sense of intimacy that these little inter-song chats bring — and certainly one of the strongest points of the Japanese indie scene is the closeness between the bands and their audiences. Too often, though, band chatter comes off as forced and tedious and goes on way too long.

2 (b). You are not a salesperson.

There are well-meaning people out there who will try to tell you that, as a musician, you need to be business-savvy and good at selling yourself. Ignore these people. You are an artist, and as such should live on a cloud. Any space in your brain that is taken up with knowledge about marketing or business strategies is valuable space wasted that could be used for storing information about distortion pedals, synthesizers and Lizzy Mercier Descloux B-sides. Bring CDs, T-shirts and flyers by all means, but if I'm interested in any of them, I will go over to the merchandise table afterward. Don't whore yourselves out from the stage; it's undignified.

3. When you smile, try not to look like a psycho.

By all means smile, make eye contact with audience members, show that you're glad to be performing there — there's nothing worse than a sour-faced, miserable old git moping about on the stage (seriously Morrissey, just retire) — but try not to look like you're on Prozac or in a religious cult. In small clubs, the audience and performers are often pushed right up close to each other, and if you're faking your emotions, it'll be obvious — never more so than if you're grinning like a Cheshire cat hopped up on meth.

4. Don't end on a slow song.

This is a weakness that many punk bands in Japan seem curiously prone to. If you have just spent the past 25 minutes driving the audience into a dancing, pogoing frenzy, why would you then go and ruin everyone's final impressions of you by closing on some six-minute, mid-paced number all about your boring, boring feelings? Stop it.

5. I don't want to fill out your questionnaire.

Many bands have a strange habit of handing out ankēto (questionnaires) to audience members after their gigs, asking things like, "Which song did you like?" "Which band member did you watch most?" and "What kinds of songs should we do more of?" If there's one thing that all self-respecting rock bands should know, it's that you never do what someone else tells you to do — whether it's The Man From Sony, your stupid fans or some idiot newspaper columnist. Ignore every one of us and just do whatever the hell you want.

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